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Turkey's women expand role in military

The Turkish army is witnessing a rapid increase of females in its ranks.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok are accompanied by a female officer as thek walk past Turkish memorial in Gallipoli.  Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok are accompanied by a female officer as they walk past Turkish memorial in Gallipoli, in western Turkey, March 18, 2005. Turkey marked today the 90th anniversary of the World War One battle which Turkish forces defeated allied forces in Dardanelles straits in 1915, cla

At the 24th International Defence Film Festival in Rome, a documentary by film director Elif Ovar of the Turkish Army’s Photo-Film Center was selected for the Jury’s Award.

Her documentary "Light of Hope" — about Senay Haydar, Turkey’s first female gendarmie commander and senior noncommissioned officer (NCO), against the backdrop of gender discrimination and violence against women in the small Anatolian town of Mesudiye — attracted much interest.

Haydar works closely with local officials and families and has been credited for eradicating violence against women among the 40,000 residents of Mesudiye. Thanks to Haydar’s actions, there hasn't been a single case of violence against women in the last nine months in Mesudiye.

Ovar told Al-Monitor that as a woman she has been much impressed with Haydar's accomplishments in a small Anatolian town where traditional culture prevails. “NCO Senay’s success, as much as this is due to [her own accomplishments], is also the success of the commanders who believed in her," Ovar said. "Appointing a female NCO as a representative of law and order to a town with 40,000 residents is truly a revolution for the Turkish army.”

Over the last three years, there have been extensive changes in the personnel policy of the Turkish army with the increase of the number of female officers and NCOs and, as was the case with Haydar, in assigning women to active field positions instead of just to administrative work at the headquarters.

In an interview with Al-Monitor Haydar said: “I always wanted to be a field commander who takes decisions instead of working at a desk. I was encouraged by the Gendarmerie General Command. When the results [of my employment] turned out to be positive, scores of female officers and NCOs followed in my footsteps.” According to a source at the Gendarmerie School in Beykent, Ankara, in October alone, 67 female NCOs have been assigned to Gendarmerie General Command field posts after they completed their basic training; another 90 female NCOs and 30 officers will follow.

Capt. Hulya Ercan, an instructor of the UH-60 Sikorsky helicopter at Ankara's Gendarmerie Aviation School, is the first female gendarmerie pilot in Turkey. In an interview with Al-Monitor she said: “My husband is a captain. I raised my daughters Bensu and Beren without giving up my profession. I actually flew until the third month of my pregnancy with my youngest. My most memorable moment was one time when my husband was away on a mission and I was ordered to fly an urgent mission. I had to leave my 1½-year-old daughter with the duty officer at the base. When I returned five hours later, I found the duty officer and many soldiers entertaining my daughter. That was memorable and funny.”

A source at the Turkish General Staff who works on planning of the personnel policies told Al-Monitor that today there are 1,350 female officers in the Turkish army, which is 3.3% of the total number of officers. The target is to increase this to 5% in the next three years. The Turkish army wants to further increase the number of female NCOs, which today stands at 843 (0.9%). The aim is to also increase this to 5% by 2018, which means the employment of an additional 4,000 female NCOs. To achieve these objectives, the Turkish army has been trying to embrace more female-friendly personnel policies.

The Turkish army employs 96 female colonels, 140 female lieutenant colonels and 360 female majors.

Colonels generally work at headquarters while majors are usually unit commanders. Staff Maj. Bilgehan Bulbul is the commander of the largest transport fleet of the Air Force Command in Ankara and is also the first female fleet commander. There is a noticeable increase of Turkish female staff officers in important headquarter posts in the army and NATO. For example, naval staff officer Maj. Yasemin Bayraktutan is Turkey's current naval attache in London. Within six-seven years, she may well become the first female admiral of the country. In an email to Al-Monitor, she said she wants to return home after excelling in her current position and before becoming an admiral she wants to command a frigate.

What is behind the Turkish army’s decision to increase the number of female officers and NCOs?

There are two practical reasons and one ideological one.

The first practical reason is the relative reduction in the number of personnel called up for compulsory military service, as the Turkish army is moving toward becoming a professional entity — increasing the number of females in the army makes up for this loss in man power.

The second practical reason is a need for female personnel because of a change in security issues the Turkish army is dealing with — notably, the shift from rural to urban areas of the Kurdistan Workers Party violence in Turkey’s southeast. In addition, there is a need for female personnel in international missions that the Turkish armed forces are undertaking in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia, among others. To have ranking female officers provides significant advantages in communicating with the local population, especially with women, and carrying out civil-military cooperation projects effectively in the health care and education sectors. Thus, the Turkish army is determined to establish more effective links with local populations in low-intensity conflict areas and peace support missions.

The ideological reason for increasing the number of females in the Turkish army is that the latter has always been the leading cause of modernization and Westernization of the republic. The army sees itself as a pioneer in all transformation processes in society, and more females and an increase in the visibility of their presence in the Turkish army delivers crucial messages — especially to the rural population — on equality for women and a more active participation of women in society.

A female in uniform backed by the Turkish army can better dissuade a man in rural Turkey, for instance, inclined to violence against his wife. "Because of my uniform and as stipulated by law, I will go after anyone committing violence against his wife or any other female," Haydar said.

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